A Day Like Any Other

Martin Clark

How to deal with a helicopter crash - backwoods style.

Deputy Harris scratched the back of his neck. “Well, that’s pretty damn weird. Huh, Sheriff?”

I removed my hat and ran fingers through my hair. “You got this singular talent for saying what everyone else is thinking, Tom. Don’t let anyone ever tell you different.” We were standing on the lip of a natural depression, up on Dead Pine Ridge. We had an impact crater, we had blast damage to the surrounding trees, we had the local fire department dampening down the smouldering undergrowth around the perimeter.

What we didn’t have was a downed aircraft.

Old Man Haskins had called it in; a helicopter flying low over his farm and then an explosion further up the valley. Hell, you could see the column of smoke from outside my office back in Henderson. As the nearest ambulance was twenty minutes further away in Porterfield, me and Tom had rounded up Doc Fraser and headed out – followed by the town fire truck once enough volunteers had reported in.

And we’d found this; your typical crash site, just lacking any shred of wreckage. It was, as Tom put it, ‘pretty damn weird’ – and I don’t like weird. I’d lived in Henderson for almost thirty years and been Sheriff for the last fifteen. Not so much a testament to my re-election skills, more like nobody else wanted the job. Henderson was a small town with a small town mentality and a small town crime rate; drunk and disorderly, the odd domestic dispute, petty theft – nothing to write home about. Now I was facing a situation that made my head hurt.

Tom lowered his voice. “Say, what if this is all just a distraction? You, me, the volunteers, all stuck out here with nobody back home minding the store.”

I frowned. “You mean everyone likely to cause a ruckus? Well, I hear what you say, Tom, but it’s not like Henderson is an obvious target for armed robbery. Even if you cleaned out every business on Main Street I doubt you’d get more than a thousand dollars. That’s pretty small change given the time and effort required to fly up here and drop a bomb.”

He scratched the back of his neck again. “Well, then maybe it’s an assassination. Maybe someone we don’t know about is going to pass through town and this is to get us out of the way.”

“Uh-huh, passing through town, heading where, exactly? The blacktop goes as far as Gaines Mill and after that it’s dirt roads over the ridge until you pick up the interstate around Blackwing. Nope, whatever this is, it ain’t criminal.”

We both turned towards the sound of a pickup bouncing up the fire trail at the foot of the slope. It was Jeff Younger, one of the volunteer firemen. Younger was a veteran; two tours in Iraq without a scratch and then hit by friendly fire forty-five minutes after landing in Afghanistan, which had to be some kind of record. He’d come home minus an eye but with some Afghan Army shrapnel embedded in his skull by way of compensation.

Jeff got out and walked up to us, carrying his helmet. “Sheriff. Tom. I was working the south forty when the siren went off and I guess the guys felt they couldn’t wait any longer. Just what kind of-” He broke off abruptly on reaching us, staring down at the crash site. “What the fuck is that?”

Tom and I looked at each other, then at Jeff. He was a pretty solid guy but sometimes he saw things that weren’t there – I figured his hallucinations were brought on by all that metal in his head. However, as things stood, I wasn’t going to discount anything which might shed some light on what we were dealing with. I tried to sound curious rather than wary. “OK, Jeff, you got the bead on this one. What’s the story?”

He pointed. “Seriously, you can’t see that? It’s like a big ball of blue gas, real sparkly, floating just above the ground, down in the middle of the crater.”

Tom and I looked, we looked real hard. My deputy shrugged. “Nope, I got nothing.”

Doc Fraser had been sitting on a fallen log, smoking, his talents unneeded. Now he stood up and walked over. “Is it just the gas you can see, Jeff? Nothing else, no prominent smell, no background sound you can’t account for?”

Jeff glared at us. “I ain’t crazy, dammit! It’s a ball of swirling gas, but a perfect sphere, like it’s behind glass. There are sparks in it, like fireflies.”

I tried not to show any emotion. “Sounds real pretty. Maybe it’s some kind of thermal after-image, from the explosion? Some people can see residual heat better than others.”

Tom nodded. “That’s a fact. Could be real useful in your line of work, Jeff.”

Younger sounded uncertain. “Yeah, well, could be that, I suppose. Anyhow, I best go help the guys finish up… Hey, where’s all the goddam wreckage?”

I set my hat in place and smoothed down the brim. “Yeah, we noticed that as well. The department is looking into it, Jeff, don’t you worry.”

He looked unconvinced but went on his way. Tom frowned. “Looking into it? We’re looking into a big, empty, hole, that’s what we’re looking into. Great story this is gonna’ make, over a few beers at Macintyre’s. ‘Local police find nothing, film at eleven.’ At least the fire department got to douse some bushes.”

I checked the Winchester 30-30 was loaded and put a handful of shells in the pocket of my windbreaker for easy access.
I half laughed. “Easy there, tiger. If anyone asks, this is an on-going investigation, and you can’t comment further, right? Anyway, the fire crew are packing up, so let’s get everyone back to town before it's overrun by gun-toting marauders.”

“You taking the rise out of me, Sheriff?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, Tom.” The three of us walked down to the 4-by-4 and I lifted the radio handset out through the open window. “Sally, this is John. Come back.”

Our office receptionist sounded nervous. “I’m here, Sheriff. Is it real bad out there? The ambulance from Portersville is on its way, but it'll take another half hour at least.”

“Well, tell them to stand down, but with our thanks. Whatever happened up here it wasn’t a crash, so we’re heading back. Say, is Quinn about? It’s Tuesday, and he normally visits the store on a Tuesday.”

Jonas Quinn was our resident weirdo, a loner who rarely ventured into town. Rumour was he’d been some kind of surveillance expert back east, maybe even a spook, before suffering a mental breakdown. Certainly his semi-derelict Airstream was festooned with more satellite dishes and antennae than a major radio station.

“Ah, yeah, I believe he was about earlier.”

“Right, well, go ask him to come out here with his radiation meter, metal detector and anything else he might have that can find what we can’t see. If he’s amenable, that is.”

Sally sounded dubious. “Well, I’ll try. What should I say is going on?”

I laughed. “Like I should know? Just tell him we have some unexplained phenomena. The guy is a UFO nut, I’m sure he’ll jump at the chance to poke around out here.”

“I’ll get right on it, Sheriff. Sally out.”

I tossed the handset onto the seat. “Tom, take the Doc back into town. I’ll wait for Quinn and catch a ride with him once we’re done. Assuming he bites, that is. If not, you’ll have to come pick me up, preferably this side of winter.”

Tom opened his mouth but the Doc spoke first. “Fine by me – and don’t even think about volunteering to stay out here with your beloved leader, Tom Harris. I’m way too old to have my bones shook from their sockets riding the fire truck.”

My deputy frowned. “Well, OK, but if I don’t pass Quinn I’ll be right back.”

“Wouldn’t expect anything less from you, Tom.“ I scratched my chin. “The only outfit around these parts likely to have a helicopter is Black Bear Mining. When you get back to the office check to see if they’re missing a bird.” He nodded. I tried to sound casual. “Best leave me the flashlight and the rifle, and that box of shells. I might do some hunting while I wait, so the day ain’t a complete bust.”

I had a reputation as a backwoodsman, having scoured the surrounding hills for years in search of game. Even so, I could tell that Tom wasn’t happy about how things were playing out. Even Doc Fraser raised his eyebrows, but I just smiled. “You still here, Tom? That wife of yours will think we’re sitting around the camp fire, swigging moonshine. Now, git.”

I stood back while everyone else left, deflecting any attempts at conversation. I stood until the fire truck and 4-by-4 were just dust trails, way down the hillside, then turned and walked back up to the crash site. I sat on the same log as Doc Fraser and waited.

There was no wind to stir the leaves, no sound at all – not even birdsong. I checked the Winchester 30-30 was loaded and put a handful of shells in the pocket of my windbreaker for easy access. Time passed. The shadows lengthened.

My walkie-talkie crackled. “Sheriff, this is Tom.” His voice was faint, riding a wave of static.

“Reading you, Tom, if barely. What’s the story?”

“Just got a message from Sally, well, two, actually. She found Quinn and apparently he’s on his way to you along with a whole bunch of weird equipment.”

“Sounds good. At least I won’t be walking home.”

“Yeah, well, it looks like you’re gonna’ have some other company as well.”

Even distorted, his tone of voice made me uneasy. “Uh-huh. Care to expand on that?”

“Four guys showed up at the office in a black SUV. Suits, short hair, sunglasses. Said they were from Black Bear and had we found their missing helo? Of course Sally didn’t know any better so she sent them on up to you. They ain’t passed me yet so you want I should pull them over?”

I couldn’t fault his enthusiasm but there was a heavy-handed feel to this I didn’t like and nothing to be gained by putting him in harm’s way. “No, let them be. But if me and Quinn aren’t back in, say, two hours, maybe you and some of the guys might like to come join me for some evening target practice?”

“You got it, Sheriff. Tom out.”

Black Bear had a prospecting operation at the base of Pharaoh’s Peak – it kind of looked like a pyramid – two valleys over. The flight path between there and the landing strip at Blackwing would have taken them in this direction, but there was nothing to explain what had become of their aircraft.

No conventional explanation, at any rate.

Sometimes you have to go on gut instinct and hope it’s based on subconscious analysis and not just wishful thinking.

Sometimes you just get lucky.

I stood up and undressed, laying my clothes out neatly on the log.

It was almost dusk but the air still felt warm against my skin. I took a deep breath, exhaled, and relaxed – letting my body shrink back into its original size and shape. The sense of relief was palpable; maintaining a human form was the equivalent of keeping your cheeks puffed out, only for days at a time. I couldn’t risk dropping my disguise in town, even in the relative privacy of my own home. It was only out here, in the guise of one of my frequent hunting trips, that I was able to be myself. Even with my own eyes there was no sign of the phenomena reported by Jeff Younger. I sat down to wait for Quinn’s arrival, enjoying the world through unadulterated senses.

Eventually I heard the sound of an approaching vehicle and slid into the bushes, in case the Black Bear team had passed Quinn’s decrepit station wagon and reached me first. However, the dust settled to reveal his rust-coloured (and covered) Buick. He was alone. Quinn struggled up the slope, arms filled with esoteric electronic equipment, and stopped on the lip of the depression.

I stepped out into view.

He grunted and set down his burden. “You’re taking a bit of a risk, aren’t you? The NSA could have this whole area under satellite surveillance. The last thing we need is you getting hauled off to Area Fifty-One. If you’re feeling suicidal at least let me make some money out of a pay-per-view alien autopsy.”

I smiled at his ingrained paranoia, finding it hard to set aside human reactions after all this time. We’d been marooned on Earth for decades, unable to locate the transfer pod containing the wormhole initiator. Eventually I figured out it had probably been the ‘comet’ of 1892, as recorded in the archives of the Porterfield Examiner. That’s the problem with side-stepping relativity, pinning down the ‘when’ of a temporal insertion can be problematic. I’d reasoned that, as Sheriff, if any of the locals did discover the pod, I’d be the first person they’d contact. As for ‘Quinn’, since arriving in town he’d been monitoring the area for anomalous energy emissions - all to no avail.

But now I believed we had our way home. “Relax, the only thing we have to worry about are some corporate security goons chasing a missing helicopter.” I took in the crash site with a sweep of my arm. “I think Black Bear Mining discovered the initiator and triggered the activation sequence while trying to fly it out. It looks like the wormhole formed just before impact.”

He stroked his chin. “That’s one hell of a stretch. Even if you’re right that leaves us worse off than before. I don’t see the Bureau mounting a second attempt to pull us out, especially if an alien flying machine just crash-landed in the retrieval centre.”

“Ah, but Jeff Younger says he can see a big, sparkling ball of blue gas, down there. A perfect sphere.”

The Quinn-shape snorted. “A residual event horizon? Do you have any idea how rare that is?”

“I believe the term ‘gift horse’ is appropriate, given the circumstances. Look, can you make it visible?”

He turned to his heap of miscellaneous equipment. “Yeah, yeah, all it takes is a modified Xeon projector. I’ll need a few minutes.”

I looked back down the valley. “A few minutes is perhaps all the time we have, so work quickly.” Changing back into human form might have been the smart move right then, but you have to understand the relief I felt at escaping from ‘John Bane’.

Eventually my fellow infiltrator stood back from the apparatus he’d assembled. “OK, it’s warming up. We should be able to see what there is to see anytime… now.” The wormhole aperture flickered into view, transformed into a perfect silver sphere that reflected its surroundings. He sounded worried. “Integrity is way down, way below the safe operating level for a group transfer.”

“Are you saying it’s useless?”

“No, not quite… but it’s like a soap bubble. The first person to cross the threshold will trigger an immediate collapse. They’ll probably stay ahead of the compression surge all the way through, but I can’t guarantee the egress point will be as expected. Either way this is a high-risk deal, and only for one of us.” He sounded tense, a hand resting on the gun-butt protruding from his jacket pocket.

“I was in charge, the senior agent. The success or failure of this mission is my responsibility.” I returned to my pile of belongings. “You should be the one to go.”

My colleague sounded pathetically grateful. “Of course I’ll inform our superiors of your sacrifice. Perhaps the gesture will spur them into sending a second pod, or even a ship?” I said nothing. We both knew that retrieving information on a backwater world such as Earth wouldn’t justify such expense. He cleared his throat. “Very well, when deactivating the projector there is no ‘on-off’ switch, you simply have to-”

I turned and shot him in the chest.

The rifle was cumbersome given my diminutive form, relatively speaking, but my mass remained unchanged and the recoil proved tolerable. ‘Jonas Quinn’ stared at me in disbelief, then sank to his knees and toppled forward into the dirt. He shrivelled in on himself, becoming a small, grey child, caught playing dress-up in adult clothes. I set the gun aside and walked down towards the wormhole, simply ignoring the evidence of our presence here on Earth. That was against every Bureau edict but I was past caring - and it wasn’t like humanity was going to expand beyond the Sol system anytime soon.

A snatch of poetry came to mind, to serve as eulogy for my fallen comrade. “A day like any other, a night like none has gone before. The future glitters on far horizon, the past, a distant shore.”

I took one long, last, look around, and kissed the Earth ‘goodbye’.

©Martin Clark 2014 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 13:48 Thu 27 Nov 2014
Copyright © Amazon Systems 2007-2018 All Rights Reserved.
Portions of this site are copyrighted to third parties